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Dutch government resigns amid child welfare benefits scandal

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In this March 15, 2019, file photo, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte waves as he waits for European Council President Donald Tusk
In this March 15, 2019, file photo, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte waves as he waits for European Council President Donald Tusk   -   Copyright  Credit: AP
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The Dutch government is resigning over its response to a child welfare benefits scandal, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday.

It emerged the tax authority wrongly accused families of fraud when claiming child benefits.

In a nationally televised speech, Rutte said he had informed King Willem-Alexander of his decision and pledged his government would continue work to compensate affected parents as quickly as possible and to battle the coronavirus.

“We are of one mind that if the whole system has failed, we all must take responsibility, and that has led to the conclusion that I have just offered the king, the resignation of the entire Cabinet,” Rutte said.

Pressure had been mounting on the Dutch government ahead of a cabinet meeting on Friday where they were set to discuss if they would quit only two months before a planned general election.

The move was seen as largely symbolic. Rutte’s government will remain in office in a caretaker mode until a new coalition is formed after a March 17 election in the Netherlands.

The resignation brings to an end a decade in office for Rutte, although his party is expected to win the election, putting him first in line to begin talks to form the next government. If he succeeds in forming a new coalition, Rutte would most likely again become prime minister.

The country is currently struggling to implement its COVID-19 response amid thousands of daily infections and a slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines.

The Netherlands is the third European country to be thrown into political uncertainty this week in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.

In Estonia, the prime minister resigned over a corruption scandal, while Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte’s governing coalition is at risk of collapse after a small partner party withdrew its support.

What was the scandal over?

Listen to our correspondent explaining the scandal prior to the government's resignation

A parliamentary report had revealed in December that thousands of parents had benefit payments stopped amid fraud investigations. Some of those parents went into debt after being wrongly accused of falsely claiming benefits.

The Dutch government has apologised for the scandal and set aside €500 million for the parents who had been affected.

Labour Party leader Lodewijk Asscher said he would resign over the scandal on Thursday, saying that he would not stand in the upcoming March 17 ballot.

Asscher was social affairs minister in the previous Dutch government from 2012 to 2017 but said in a video posted to Facebook that he "did not know that the tax authorities had launched an illegal hunt for thousands of families".

The Labour Party shared power in the government until losing seats in 2017 and is now in opposition.

Rutte said on Thursday that he had spoken to Asscher.

"I greatly appreciated his tremendous commitment to our country and our cooperation over the years. I personally wish him all the best," Rutte tweeted.